Dame Judi Dench on filming 'Belfast' during the pandemic: 'It was just an incredible time'

Kenneth Branagh's film, which comes out in cinemas this week, is nominated for seven Academy Awards

From left, Judi Dench, Jude Hill and Ciaran Hinds in 'Belfast'. AP
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“I dote on him,” says Dame Judi Dench, speaking over Zoom from a plush London hotel room. She’s talking, of course, about Sir Kenneth Branagh — her beloved friend and collaborator for more than 30 years. They’ve acted together. She’s directed him on stage. And he’s directed her on film, in everything from Hamlet to Murder on the Orient Express.

Yet even she was surprised when he came to her with his latest — and most personal — project, Belfast.

Set during the August 1969 riots when sectarian violence spilled onto the streets, it’s a semi-autobiographical account of Branagh’s Northern Irish childhood. The Troubles, as these clashes between Protestants and Catholics became known, are seen through the eyes of Buddy, 9, played by newcomer Jude Hill. Dench plays his grandmother, heavily disguised under thick glasses, a grey pudding bowl wig, and a strong Belfast accent.

“I was the naughty girl ... everyone else seemed to be able to completely master the Northern Ireland accent,” Dench says with a chuckle. “It’s jolly difficult … but I just relied on Ken to tell me when it’s not right.”

Dench’s own mother, Eleanora, came from Dublin and she had an uncle from Belfast, who visited them in York, where she grew up after her family moved to Britain. “I used to get him to recite [certain phrases],” she says, words she’d repeat on set before every shot.

While she’s known Branagh since 1987, when they first appeared together on television in a production of Henrik Ibsen’s play Ghosts, she knew little of his childhood years. “I never knew that in Kenny until I read this and knew it was autobiographical. I had not known about that [part of his life], although I knew that he was from Northern Ireland.”

She feels the story is “traumatic”, the way the family are torn apart by political events out of their control.

Yet it’s not all bleakness, with Branagh gilding the story with humour and even romance. In one touching scene, Dench is gently waltzed around the room by Ciaran Hinds, the Belfast-born actor who plays her husband. Did she enjoy that scene, dancing with a man twenty years her junior?

“Oh, Yes. I had a nice time.Such a nice time,” she says, almost blushing at the thought. “It’s a good relationship, the two of them must have had. I think that’s a very true relationship that Ken wrote about.”

The film, which has already won the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto Film Festival last year, is up for seven Oscars and is among the favourites to take Best Picture next month. Dench has been nominated for Best Supporting Actress — making her, at 87, the oldest nominee in that category. It’s the eighth Oscar nod of her distinguished career — she won back in 1999, at the second attempt, for her dominant turn as Queen Elizabeth I in Shakespeare in Love, when she was on screen for less than eight minutes.

For Dench, though, her greatest reward was making the film — not least because the production came between Covid-19 lockdowns. “It was like suddenly being released. And it was beautifully orchestrated so that we were all masked, and we all had special places to go.” The crew would come in, light a scene, and then leave. “And then we went in. So it was all very carefully monitored. But it was just an incredible time. And that’s Ken ... he’s able to organise things in such a way.”

Dench kept busy during lockdown learning how to use TikTok – her grandson Sam teaching the finer points of the social media sensation. She’d planned to learn the Shakespeare sonnets off by heart (bringing her back to her days, in the 1960s, as a leading light at the Royal Shakespeare Company), although she didn’t quite manage it.

“Of course, with lockdown there was no end. So you kept prevaricating and simply putting it off and saying, ‘Oh, well, I’ve got all the time ...’”

As a fixture of the British stage — she’s won a Tony and seven Olivier awards — Dench was truly concerned when theatres began closing due to the pandemic.

“I was very worried about the state of everything,” she says. “When we were lucky enough to do Belfast, we were in that little kind of pause ... but subsequently, you wondered, ‘Will we ever get back?’ Actors are one thing, but I have friends who’ve been stage doormen, for instance, for 40 years in theatres, and they’re an institution.” She sighs. “Everybody is at risk.”

At least she managed to get to the Royal Albert Hall for the premiere of James Bond movie No Time To Die last September. Her association with the franchise is huge, given she played 007’s boss M since 1995’s GoldenEye. Did she know what was going to happen?

“No, they kept it entirely secret from me.” She was delighted by the fact her likeness appeared on a wall in MI6 in this latest outing. “It was a quiz question the other day, ‘How many [Bond films] have I done?’” The answer is nine. “Because there was a portrait of me on the wall.”

Dench has also completed her next role, an adaptation of Alan Bennett’s play Allelujah — which reunites her with Richard Eyre, who previously directed her to Oscar nominations in Iris and Notes on a Scandal. Yet even with 65 years of experience to draw from, she admits to having anxiety every time she goes on camera.

“I think it’s always difficult — acting. You’re always assessing yourself and always criticising yourself. And you try not to let that overweigh the fact that you’re trying to act at the same time.”

With perfectionism ingrained in her, you won’t see her step away from performing. “People retire from work usually in order to do the things they really want to do — walk or read or paint or travel the world. That’s what my job is to me. It’s entirely all those things. I love it. I just love it," she says.

"I love working with different people, I love working with different actors. I love learning something new each time. That’s genuinely my hobby and my career, thank goodness. So I don’t want to retire — and I wouldn’t know what to do if I did.”

Belfast is in UAE cinemas from February 24

Updated: February 24, 2022, 5:31 AM